Water management through the ages

The Middle Ages

What would happen if the Netherlands were not protected by dikes and duines.
Animation: The Netherlands without dikes and duines
From the moment that people first started living in the Delta area, they had to work together in order to survive. Farmers had to drain the ground in order to make agriculture possible. However, since the peat lost most of the water it had once absorbed, it compacted down and the ground level fell until it approached the groundwater level. The more water farmers drained, the more the peat settled, the more the ground level fell and the more water had to be drained, etc etc.

Eventually, a water management system was required to keep the water out. Gullies were dug out, which were bound near a river with a sluice. The sluice could prevent high water levels from flowing into the polder and drain the redundant water into the river. The latter could only be done when the water level in the river was not too high however. When water levels were high for a long period, the water would eventually flow back into the polder.

Therefore, every field was enclosed by a dike, each with its own sluice. This was known as the 'polder-outlet pool' system: an area with a number of polders, cut off from the river. The area between the polders, which was also cut off from the river, was called the drainage/outlet pool (Dutch: ‘boezem’). During times of chronicly high water levels, water can be stored in this outlet pool, thus without flooding the fields.

After a while, the peaty soil fell so much, that the above described system no longer worked. The soil remained marshy. From the fifteenth century onwards, a new technological development provided a new solution: wind drainage. Mills were placed on the sluices between the polder and the outlet pool. These mills were able to pump water upwards and therefore pump water from the polder into the outlet pools, regardless of the river's water level. Unfortunately, one problem remained - what if the outlet pool was to become full. Pumping water from the outlet pool and back into the river would have been an expensive solution in the Middle Ages.

Individual farmers were unable to build and maintain all these dikes, sluices and mills. To share the costs, hamlets were established. These ‘hamlets’ can be considered as precursor of the current local water management organisations. Within a hamlet, every farmer was responsible for a small part of the dike. Later, the hamlets had their own management. In some areas, the water management organisations remained small, but in for instance the south of Holland, three very large water management organisations were established, the so called ‘hoogheemraadschappen’ (dike/polder boards) of Delft land, Schie land and Rhine land. These umbrella organisations had a high status and became very rich. They attracted scientific staff, and co-ordinated the hamlets.

In many polders however, water management remained divided. The division of power had some negative consequences. Firstly, only the polders that bordered onto a river or the sea were responsible for the maintenance of the river or sea dikes. Although other polders benefited from the dikes too, they did not have to contribute to the maintenance. The financial support for the water management was therefore not optimal. A flood in the year 1675 demonstrated the weaknesses of the system.

The crumbling of the water management also implied that the local organisations developed at their own pace. Cooperation was difficult, because each organisation had its own problems and its own way of dealing with them. Additionally, there was no defined standard to determine whether the dikes were the correct size. It was difficult to determine the materials used and the quality of the dikes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many district water boards switched over to a new system. Instead of farmers, the boards maintained the dikes themselves, financed by levying taxes. The more powerful the district water boards were, the more interested the government was. The States of Holland governed the projects and ensured different water boards did not interfere with each other. Moreover, the States wanted to ensure that the water boards’ interests did not conflict with the military interests of the States. The government could flood strips of land as a defence line if necessary. After the flood of 1675, the States introduced an annual check, to prevent the district water boards from neglecting their duties.

French influences

In 1795, the French army of Napoleon attacked the Netherlands. The Dutch elite welcomed the French and started a debate about how the Dutch States could be reformed in pursuant to a real united nation, like that of the French. The central theme of this debate was centralisation. The district water boards would have to be centralised too. After a long debate, the new constitution was adopted in 1795. One of the consequences was that a central institute had to take reponsibility of all the water ways and public works. This became the ‘Bureau voor den Waterstaat’ (Bureau for Water Management). 

After 1815

After the Napoleon armies were defeated in 1815, the Netherlands became an autonomous, sovereign state once again, with King Wiliam I on the throne. During his reign, a lot was done to improve the nation’s waterways. Not without reason, William I was nicknamed the ‘channel king’. One of his achievements was the Amortisation Syndicate, a veiled investment bank, which financed infrastructural projects by selling state properties and issuing loans. With this syndicate, William I skirted not only parliament and filled his own pockets, but also contributed to the Dutch infrastructure. The North-Holland channel, for instance, was in 1824 the largest channel for ocean shipping in the world. In 1838, the Rhine railway was built and in 1839 the Lake of Haarlem was reclaimed by means of the strongest steam pumping-stations available.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the Bureau for Water Management (named ‘Rijkswaterstaat’ after 1815) developed into a large and powerful organisation that meddled in a growing number of affairs. Large projects were for instance the railway bridge near Culemburg (1868), and the Northern sluice near Ijmuiden (1929). Since the major flood of 1953, Rijkswaterstaat has been occupied with the design, construction and maintenance of the Deltaworks.